Thursday, 31 July 2014

Raphael: devotional or modern?

I’m reading Geraldine Johnson, The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction (2005), which provides what can be described as the Official view (since we are using capital letters) of the Renaissance, the view from the academic institution. The book opens with Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, one of the most widely known Renaissance works of art, and which is used to exemplify how different our modern interpretation of the picture is from that of Raphael’s contemporaries. Ms Johnson claims that while we moderns (and Goethe) treat such pictures as mystical objects worth of worship in their own right, Raphael’s contemporaries would have treated such a picture primarily as a devotional object.

What do you think? I disagree. I think we enjoy The Sistine Madonna because it appears to us to go beyond the tired and repetitive religious tradition of altarpieces within which it appears. There are plenty of devotional altarpieces from the Renaissance that we don’t look at twice nowadays, however successful they may have been as devotional objects. 

Nor do we look at this painting as “almost mystical visual contemplation”. The two small putti provide a humorous tone to the whole painting, as does the exotic hat placed in the bottom left-hand corner. None of these objects is in the least other-worldly. They are gently humorous, and in some way reassuring: we feel this artist is at one with us, and these objects inform our interpretaion of the figures above. The image of the woman in the centre of the painting is certainly not other-worldly; certainly a recent arrival, most likely by some modern form of air-driven transport, with clothes billowing in the wind, but with weight and solidity (even if not depicted as standing on the ground). The whole picture has a theatrical air to it, almost the result of a conjuring trick where the woman has been made to appear using some wind-based magic.

“The concept of “Art” itself must be contextualised through the “period eye” of 15th- and 16th-century beholders.” I disagree. If we only saw the art with contemporary eyes, we would see a very different picture. Having just read  Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography, which was written only some twenty years after this painting was created, I don’t think this picture would have represented a devotional object for many of its viewers, and certainly not for Benvenuto Cellini, and probably not for the Pope either. Nowhere in Cellini is there any genuine religious feeling, simply the folk-tradition of a God who rewards victory. Instead, there was a deliberate cult of the beautiful object, which could be paid for and treasured. Cellini is excited throughout his account by the sheer expensiveness of the art that he produces. That is a very modern phenomenon, and one that seemed to be shared by more than one of the Popes who commissioned him. Devotion seems to have had little to do with it. 

Friday, 4 July 2014

The Life of Benvenuto Cellini – a new (and not very inspiring) view of the Renaissance artist

Benvenuto Cellini’s Life must be one of the most boastful autobiographies ever written. Whether writing about his art, or about his fighting, he is determined to let you know he is the best.

Perhaps in later life he became more contrite, but thus far in his life (we have reached 1532) he is incorrigibly full of himself, and convinced that he is right in every situation. Many art critics have labelled Cellini a great artist, and of course, you may say, the end (great art) justifies the means (a boastful life). If Cellini’s account of himself in his autobiography was merely boastful, this would not prevent the reader warming to him. But there is more to it than that.  My interpretation of Cellini’s own account of his life is that if he had lived today he would have been imprisoned for a lengthy period. What is more, this is a life of a man who is fundamentally not of the Renaissance.

·         Deeply unchristian. Cellini fails to display any kind of altruism. The greatest motivation he has is to be show he is better than others, and to hit people who insult members of his family. References to God are like those mentions of the divine in professional  footballers: God is there to aid your victory and to ensure the other side is comprehensively defeated.  All means are fair, it would appear, once you have God on your side.  

·         Throughout the autobiography, Cellini is not simply irreligious but motivated by folk-learning (in his dealings with doctors) and belief in witchcraft (there is a long episode in which he visits the cellars of the Colosseum with a necromancer). I recently read an account of medieval travellers, which pointed out how these travellers mixed uncritically the things they had seen (people, places, and customs) as well as reporting with seemingly equal belief stories of monsters and fairies. Cellini is the same: he believes in omens, in superstition, and shows no sign of a disinterested humanism of the kind we expect from Renaissance figures.  Of course the Renaissance artist had to have an income, but Cellini from his own account seems to have no higher motives than selling art at the highest price and then gaining a sinecure for himself to guarantee a regular income. This is not, in other words, the cynical leaving the idealism, but cynicism alone. Cellini does not have an attractive character.

·         But worse than that, he murders without regret. The murder he describes appears to be premeditated, in the hope that during the period of electing a new Pope a pardon is granted to criminals [See the World’s Classics edition of Cellini’s Life, editor’s note to page 122: “it is difficult to believe Cellini’s killing of Pompeo was not premeditated”. ]. Cellini’s motive for murder, as with so many of his actions, is based around family loyalty. You hit my brother, and I will kill you.

·         So what becomes now of the Renaissance humanist, the sublime Renaissance artist? After committing murder, Cellini appears before the Pope, who, without any legal process having taken place, protects him.  As the Pope himself says to those who criticise him for exonerating a man accused of murder:

You don’t understand the matter as well as I do. You should know that men like Benvenuto, unique in their profession, need not be subject to the law; especially Benvenuto, since I know what good reasons he had.
·         Not only is Cellini above other humans, but he also has magical powers the rest of us don’t have – such as the way he reports conversations he cannot possibly have heard, since he was not present.  Yet he knows precisely how other have praised him when he isn’t there.  Would you, reader, defend such outrageous behaviour?
·         This is where it becomes interesting. It was in the Renaissance that the artist was labelled as divine, as superhuman. In the 21st century, we love such an exaggerated respect given to artists. But would we really defend a murderer?  English law distinguishes premeditated murder from manslaughter, but I believe Cellini would have been found guilty of the former.

·         Stranger still is the way that modern commentators, for example the Bondanellas, responsible for the OUP World’s classics, overstate Cellini’s education [“a very substantial education acquired from a variety of literary, artistic and historical sources”]. On the contrary, Cellini appears to have known little Latin, and I can see little evidence (as they claim) that he has read and appreciated Dante, or that he had any great knowledge about or interest in iconography except from what any Renaissance artist would have picked up from their regular studio practice.